Africans Wrestle With G(ri)M Choice
There's some priceless Florence Wambugu in the article on GM in Africa below.
The article tells us: "Wambugu believes no Kenyan farmer not even her own grandmother would refuse GM seeds if they would bring higher yields" Wambugu neglects to mention that so far, as with her much hyped GM sweet potatoes that were supposed to more than double production, GM seeds have generally brought lower yields!
The article continues: "That doesn't mean GM is Africa's silver bullet. Providing loans to small farmers, fixing roads and creating regional markets for future surpluses are all vital to solving Kenya’s food insecurity, she says. 'There is no one technology that will end hunger. I don't know why this argument is pushed in Africa.'"
Yet Wambugu has pushed that very argument - GM as the simplistic solution to all of Africa's woes -more than anyone.
She's claimed GM crops are 'the key to eradicating poverty and hunger in the Third World', saying that they 'could almost literally weed out poverty', and that they could take care of 'famine', and even that they could pull 'the African continent out of decades of economic and social despair'.
And now she tells us it's not a silver bullet and she doesn't know why people keep bringing that up!
For more on why Wambugu won her PANTS ON FIRE award:
Africans Wrestle With Grim Choice
GM Crops - Adapt Or Starve In Africa
by Robert Scalia
Monday, 9 August 2004, 1:41 pm
Opinion: Robert Scalia
Sam Musoke knows what his people will and will not eat.
Like many farmers in central Uganda, Musoke doesn’t use chemical pesticides. Instead, he prefers manure and mulched tobacco leaves to fertilize the red arid soil on his 10-hectare commercial farm in Nsangi District, where banana, mango and avocado trees grow in fenced plots.
But fences designed to keep his farm animals out have proved useless against the various pests and viruses that continue to ravage his crops - a problem that has plagued many subsistence farms in the region.
Musoke says these poor farmers can hardly produce enough food for themselves, let alone for profit. Manure and pesticides are costly. Farmers want solutions, even if that means planting genetically modified crops.
" Farmers will not refuse crops because they are genetically modified," he tells me in his characteristically reflective tone. " But if the food doesn’t taste the same, people will reject it."
Like most African nations, Uganda currently forbids planting GM crops on its soil for either research or commercial purposes. Politicians, exporters and consumers believe GM could threaten the country’s organic sector, which has found a very lucrative market in Europe.
Similar public concern over cross contamination and the long-term health effects of genetic modification forced American biotech giant Monsanto to shelve its GM wheat program in North America. Several European and Asian countries had even threatened to boycott Canadian wheat had Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant variety been introduced.
For the moment, farmers in Uganda don’t even have that option. They rely instead on various insect resistant strains (hybrids) developed through conventional cross breeding by the Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Uganda’s leading research body.
Musoke has planted several cassava hybrids resistant to the infamous Cassava Mosaic, a virus which has ravaged crops across Eastern Africa. But these strains take far longer to grow and taste bitter, which hasn’t made them very popular with the locals. And he still lost nearly 40 per cent of his cassava crop last year.
" The average person eats what is tasty and easy to prepare. If these varieties are not palatable, then I won’t waste my time with them."
It has been said of Africa that beggars can't be choosers.
The Bush administration made that very argument in late 2002 after famine-stricken Zambia announced it would not accept any GM grain from the US, where almost 80 per cent of food contains genetically modified organisms. Angola recently did the same.
In Uganda, the government's recent decision to allow GM food imports in the wake of last year’s whirlwind African tour by president Bush shocked its East African neighbours and outraged local farmers. Non-governmental organizations have also weighed in on the debate. Last week, over 60 NGOs from 15 African countries accused the World Food Programme (WFP) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for effectively forcing African nations to accept GM food aid against their will.
The US, meanwhile, continues to accuse anti-GM lobbyists and Europe for impeding its efforts to reduce hunger in Africa. Shooting down calls for more long-term health and environmental testing, the US insists any food good enough for its own people is good enough for Africans.
In Kenya, where erratic rains have left an estimated 2 million people without food, discussions on the long-term repercussions of GM have taken a back seat to hunger.
"People who are starving don’t care either way," explains Philippe Guiton, the Africa relief manager for World Vision. "They are dying now. But we need to take all precautions. What’s the use of saving people’s lives today to have them die tomorrow?"
The World Health Organization has proclaimed GM foods safe for consumption. Guiton would still like to see more long-term testing. And while he applauds Kenya’s decision to accept all food aid, he believes the government has become too focused on GM research funded by the US and international biotech giants.
Dr. Florence Wambugu of A Harvest Biotech Foundation International denies her native Kenya has been dragged into this global showdown.
"Nobody in Africa is going to use these technologies because the Americans or Europeans tell them to," she explains with slight irritation. "Our group's vision is to fight hunger, poverty and malnutrition. We need to get science working for the poor."
Climate isn't the only cause of famine in Kenya. It is estimated that the Stem Borer pest alone destroys nearly 15 per cent of the nation’s staple yellow maize crops every year.
Back in 1991, Wambugu pioneered research into a GM Sweet Potatoe strain for Kenya at Monsanto’s laboratory in St. Louis. While a skeptical media has proclaimed the ensuing three-year field trials a failure, the Kenya Research Agricultural Institute is pushing forward with similar trials for insect-resistant Bt Maize, funded in part by USAID.
Wambugu believes no Kenyan farmer not even her own grandmother would refuse GM seeds if they would bring higher yields
That doesn't mean GM is Africa's silver bullet. Providing loans to small farmers, fixing roads and creating regional markets for future surpluses are all vital to solving Kenya’s food insecurity, she says. " There is no one technology that will end hunger. I don't know why this argument is pushed in Africa."
Alwyn Botha has taken the plunge.
Standing beside six-foot-high plants, the South African farmer explains why he decided to plant almost 60 hectares of Syngenta’s Bt Maize. " In the end, your yields are your profit," he explains matter-of-factly. " When stem borer hits, you can lose big time."
The seeds are more expensive, but he is saving on costly pesticides and insecticides. Although South Africa is one of the few African nations to have commercialized GM crops, Botha says many subsistence farmers refuse to part with tradition.
That’s why Dr. Theresa Sengooba believes taste and technology must go hand in hand.
" It’s so difficult to get people to change their eating habits," explains the coordinator for biotechnology research at KARI in Uganda, using the various banana hybrids her institution pioneered as an example. " People will say: ‘Yes, it is big and produces more. But that’s not what I eat.’"
That’s why Sengooba believes genetic modification if accepted in Uganda - might be the only way to create resistant strains that people will also enjoy.
Once scientists are able to identify genes that can ward off the weevils or Black Sogatoga virus that destroy banana yields in the region, those specific genes could then be inserted into local varieties. That same procedure could also be used to improve beans, sorghum, passion fruit, sweet potatoe and ground nuts.
" What farmers look for is resistant varieties - I don’t think he really cares if it’s GM or hybrid. Still, we don’t want them to say we are shoving GM down their throats. All Ugandans better have the luxury to choose."
And that’s exactly why Sam Musoke takes umbrage with the US position. " They’re not saying we should have GM because it’s good for us, but only because we need it."
Musoke is well aware that most Western countries have refused GM crops. He insists farmers in Uganda also fear cross contamination and despise the idea of having to buy sterile GM seeds every year.
Yet as he stands among dozens of scattered mangoes rotting from a disease he can’t even name, Musoke reminds me yields are still his biggest concern at the end of the day. Passion fruit blight dries up his plants. Several of his banana trees recently went yellow from Panama Disease and had to be uprooted. And then there is the Cassava Mosaic.
If a GM cassava resistant to the virus was developed tomorrow, Musoke says he would be the first to plant it. " As long as there are no side effects. "
Robert Scalia is a freelance journalist based in Montreal, Canada. He was recently in Africa on a fellowship sponsored by the Canadian Association of Journalists. His main area of research during five weeks in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa was genetically modified crops. The story above first appeared in the Montreal Gazette.
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